This is the opening of The Wolf in Winter, Volume 1 of The Trystan Trilogy. The book opens with an overarching prologue for the trilogy, followed by part of the ‘proper’ prologue. For prologue haters, the overarching prologue is quite short, and the ‘proper’ prologue is chapter length and is integral to the story, although it’s set 17 years before the rest of the story.
For those who’ve read Song of a Red Morning, this is the bonus material at the end of that short story.
The Trystan Trilogy
Dunpeldyr in Lothian, Spring 491 AD
ENDING AND BEGINNING
Tomorrow, I will burn my father.
Tomorrow, I’ll set flame to his pyre and send the smoke of his burning high into the sky. Men will see that smoke from Dun Eidyn in the west to the eastern lands the Angles have taken for their own, and know he’s dead, the man who ruled Lothian for over thirty years. But Lothian won’t remain unruled for long. Tomorrow, once the fire has burned away to ash, the Chieftains will gather in Dunpeldyr’s hall to choose another king. They’ll argue and bicker, remember old feuds and settle new scores, debate the rights of this one or that, declaim their qualities and ancestry. Yet I will say nothing and none will speak my name. I’ll sit in the chair that stands beside my father’s, the one I’ve made my own, and let his ashes sift through my fingers until they’ve talked themselves into a decision. For they have little choice and I will have none.
So, tomorrow, I will be King, but tonight I’m free. Tonight, I’ll pace Dunpeldyr’s ramparts and watch the sun bleed behind the sloe-black peaks of Manau until all light and warmth have vanished from the world. Tonight, in the cold and dark, I’ll tell myself the story of everything that has led me here, before that too vanishes. Already my tale is that of a man I no longer know, a man whose name, amongst others, was Corwynal of Lothian. Tomorrow that man will step over the threshold the fickle gods have forced him to cross. But tonight he’ll remember the night of Imbolc more than a score of years before when he made a choice of his own and stepped over another threshold. So that’s where he’ll begin – on a Night of Thresholds when he still had a father, but not yet a brother.
Or a son.
The WOLF IN WINTER
Dunpeldyr in Lothian, Spring 468 AD, twenty-three years earlier
A DEATH AND A BIRTH
Corwynal flinched as yet another scream knifed through Dunpeldyr’s empty hall. The cry shrieked up into the smoke-stained rafters, before dwindling to a low moaning echo that trickled away to dusty silence. Eventually, however, other sounds slipped back into the hall; snow creaked on the thatch, women murmured anxiously in the chamber at the end of the hall, and, in the distance, borne on the wintry east wind, the sounds of celebration rose from the lambing fields.
Corwynal should have been down in those fields with the rest of the men of Dunpeldyr, for it was the night of Imbolc, the night that marked the end of winter. Instead, he was listening to a woman scream in a cold hall lit only by a handful of little lamps, though, in truth, he had no choice. He was Captain of the woman’s guard, and his duty was to protect her, although, right then, he couldn’t guard her from what was happening beyond the leather hangings at the end of the hall because no-one could. And now it had begun to seem as if he was no longer there to witness the birth he’d expected, but the death he feared. Night edged its way toward dawn, and each scream was weaker than the last, each silence longer, until it was the silence rather than the screams that burned through his blood and bones.
If he’d been alone, he would have raised his fists to shake them at the gods and demand they do something for once. He might even have begged. But he wasn’t alone. His men waited with him, men with more right than him to guard the woman, for they, like her, were from Galloway. They were hard, these men, their faces scarred and evil, their weapons honed to a gleam. They lived and breathed battle, laughed at its bowel-churning terror, yet still they flinched at a woman’s screams.
Corwynal, as their leader, had to be harder than any of them. He had to hold his stance, head back, feet apart, one hand clenched so tightly on the pommel of his sword his nails had driven into his flesh, leaving his palm sticky with blood. He had to pretend this meant nothing to him, and so he gripped his expression just as fiercely. Perhaps he fooled his men, for none of them spoke, though he felt their breath pluming on the back of his neck as they muttered curses or prayers. He heard them move restlessly behind him as if they too wished they were far away, down by the Imbolc fires, drinking and feasting to drive away the dark.
In Lothian, as in all the Lands between the Walls, Imbolc, the Night of Thresholds, was a night for men to sing and shout and stagger back to the arms of their women in the bitter dawn of the first day of spring. But the Galloway men didn’t complain. They waited, bracing themselves for each scream to rise out of the anxious murmur of the woman’s attendants, until Tegid, the youngest, unable to bear it any longer, whimpered in distress, and Corwynal came at last to a decision.
‘This can’t go on.’ He turned to face his men for the first time that night and jerked his head at Tegid. ‘Fetch Blaize.’
The Galloway men exchanged glances, and even in the dim light of the flickering Imbolc lamps Corwynal saw Tegid pale.
‘But where? And what—?’
‘Just find him!’ Corwynal’s voice began to crack open, but he caught and held it.
Tell him She’s dying. ‘She.’ That was how he thought of her. She needed no other name, though of course she had one. His men would have called her Princess Gwenllian, the Fair Flower of Galloway, for she was sister to Marc, Galloway’s King. But she was Queen of Lothian now and soon to give birth to its heir, for she was wed to the King – who was Corwynal’s father.
Time passed, then more time, as he waited for Blaize to come and wondered if he’d done the right thing in sending for his uncle. A birth was women’s battle to fight, and Blaize had little patience with women. But, after a day and night of screaming, Blaize, with healing skills, might be her only hope.
The embers in the firepit dwindled to a smoor of ruddy ash that gave little light and no warmth at all. Some of the Imbolc lamps guttered and died and sent greasy smoke spiralling into the rafters. The stench of mutton-fat merged with the stink of stale rushes and the harsher, acrid smell of whatever was happening at the other end of the hall. Somewhere, a shutter banged as the wind rose, and within the hall the wall-hangings stirred in the draughts, setting the woven wolves, Lothian’s symbol, slinking through the shadows as if they were alive, their jewelled eyes glinting balefully. The remaining Imbolc lamps flickered and waned but, like Corwynal’s hopes, couldn’t quite be extinguished. As long as he waited, sharing her pain, she wouldn’t die, couldn’t die. Not when she was only eighteen, a bride of a mere eight months.
It was close to dawn when Tegid returned, slipping back to take his place with the others, and throwing Corwynal a guilty, apprehensive glance as he did so. Behind him the door crashed open, and snow plumed into the hall on a blast of icy Imbolc air that smelled of pine and heather. The wind drove back the stench of smoke and rushes, and most of the lamps blew out, turning the man who stood in the doorway into a hard-edged silhouette set against the streaming torchlight of the courtyard. Corwynal’s heart began to thud, for he knew that silhouette all too well. It wasn’t Blaize who’d come, but another man entirely.
Rifallyn, King of Lothian, his father and Blaize’s half-brother, ordered his men to wait outside, then slammed the door behind him and strode over to the firepit, stripping off his gloves as he did so to thrust his hands out to the faintly glowing ash. The Galloway men straightened and stared into the middle distance, hoping to make themselves invisible. Perhaps they succeeded, for the King ignored them and gazed down into the fire, a tall man, broad across the shoulders, his bulk accentuated by a shrouding cloak of wolf-skin.
‘Well?’ he asked, lifting his head. His tone was mild, but his expression mirrored that of the snarling wolf’s head on his gold-embroidered tunic. More gold glinted from his wrists and neck, from the grip of his sword and the jewelled brooch on his shoulder. Yet none of these could compete with the glitter of his amber wolf’s eyes. ‘Well, Corwynal?’ he repeated, his voice not quite steady, and Corwynal began to be afraid, and not just for himself.
‘The Queen is come early to the birth,’ he replied as evenly as he could, with a deliberate glance at his men to remind his father of what was at stake. ‘But her women say it goes badly.’
The sound of the women was louder now, and one of them was sobbing noisily. His father turned and spat into the fire. ‘Women!’ He threw his gloves to the floor and, thrusting aside one of the Galloway men, strode over to Corwynal and loomed over him. ‘What do they know? What do you know? Tell me that!’ He took Corwynal’s upper arm in a painful grip, his fingers digging into the flesh above his bronze armband. ‘What has any of this to do with me?’’
‘Rather a lot, I would have thought,’ said a voice from behind them.
The Galloway men, who hadn’t noticed Blaize come into the hall, hissed, and backed away, though, to Corwynal’s eyes, the man who strolled towards them looked harmless enough. He was of medium height and of middle years, with a northern look to him, for, like Corwynal, he was half-Caledonian. His long greying dark hair was pulled back into a silver ring and he was dressed in a none-too-clean habit such as those worn by the priests of Chrystos, though he didn’t follow that god. Blaize served older gods; around his neck hung an oak-leaf medallion, and his forehead bore the faded mark of the druids. Corwynal’s men believed him to be a Caledonian sorcerer, but he thought of his uncle as a friend, one of the few he had.
‘You married the girl,’ Blaize reminded his half-brother. ‘You wanted her to give you a son, and so . . .’ He shrugged. ‘So, here we are . . .’
‘Indeed!’ Rifallyn snarled, but he slackened his grip on Corwynal’s arm. ‘Well then, since you’ve chosen to interfere, you can see that she does.’
Blaize held the King’s eyes for a moment, then smiled his wintry smile, loosened the knife in the sheath at his waist, walked to the end of the hall and pushed aside the hangings that barred the entrance to the women’s chambers. Moments later three of the Queen’s attendants came stumbling out to throw themselves at Rifallyn’s feet, sobbing and begging for his protection from the druid priest, and reaching up to touch his tunic in entreaty, their hands slick with blood and mucus.
‘Get out!’ the King snapped, stepping back sharply, his voice thick with disgust, and the women scuttled off into the night, keening as they went. Is She dead? There was no longer any sound from the bedchamber where a woman had been screaming, and all he could hear was the ragged breathing of his men and his own heart thudding in his chest. Then a new sound came from beyond the hangings, and his heart stopped entirely. It wasn’t the scream he’d braced himself for, nor the lasting silence he dreaded more.
It was the faint, querulous cry of an infant.
© Barbara Lennox 2014